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Fall Comdex 1997 Reviewed

Day one - Sunday, November 16, 1997
This year, for the first time, the opening Comdex keynote was held on the Sunday night before the opening of Comdex, not that morning. Trying to beat the crowds into Vegas--an estimated 215,000 people will attend this year's show--Joe and I left Arizona at 7:00 a.m. Sunday and arrived at the city of sin at exactly 7:00 a.m. Sunday thanks to the wonders of Daylight Savings Time. And as expected, we beat the crowds into town for the first time ever. Of course, Vegas is still quiet this early, so nothing was open except for the restaurants and casinos.

We ate breakfast and headed over to the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Hilton to pick up our press passes, hoping to beat the crowds there as well. The Hilton is undergoing massive additions and renovations, not the least of which is the new "Star Trek--the Experience," which will open in January, supposedly. Of course, this thing has been delayed more times than Windows 98, so call first if you're coming to Vegas to check it out.

Joe in front of the Las Vegas Hilton, which had some serious
construction going on.

After wandering around inside the Convention Center, watching people trying to get their booths up, we figured out the new exterior layout--the whole place has changed due to the construction--and finally found the registration tent. Needless to say, the Web-based registration we completed in August was mysteriously missing from the Comdex computers, so we spent a few mindless hours getting our badges straightened out. I somehow ended up with an exhibitor's badge as well as my press badge though I haven't yet decided how/when I will abuse it.

We spent the afternoon watching football and then headed out for the keynote...early, as it turned out. We had forgotten about the Daylight Savings Time issue, and arrived 2-1/2 hours early, rather than the 1-1/2 we had planned. Bill Gates' keynote address is always heavily anticipated and you need to spend some serious time in line if you want to see it live, and even at this early hour, there were numerous people waiting. We headed up to the pre-keynote media event, but that was about as boring as you can imagine, with media "luminaries" such as Cheryl Currid droning on and on about NCs and sealed-case PCs. I can't believe anyone that really cares what these people think, but there was a pretty good crowd in there, most of whom were probably hanging around for the eventual buffet. We took off and headed outside to check out the line.

Outside, two lines circled the Aladdin Imperial Theater as geeks gathered to hear their leader speak. A (bad) Bill Gates impersonator worked the crowd, promoting a parody CD-ROM called "Microshaft Winblows 98." We threatened a wedgie and he moved on. Eventually, the let the press into the theater and we grabbed a seat down front. Each seat had a nice Comdex badge holder and an "I love my PC" T-shirt that underscored the anti-NC theme of Gates' keynote. The audience quickly filled the theater, with overflow crowds herded into video-equipped rooms.

Bill Gates was introduced like a rock star, with booming music and a light show.

Bill Gates at the Fall 1997 Comdex keynote address.

"Good evening. When someone first told me that I was scheduled to give this speech on Sunday night, I was worried that nobody would come," Gates said to thunderous applause. "But, I guess I've been in the news enough recently to attract a little attention."

The keynote drove home Microsoft's desire to extend the life of the Windows-based PC, with some nice anti-DOJ and anti-NC humor thrown in for good measure. Gates started off with a Letterman-style "top ten list of why he love his PC." This brought more laughs from the obviously pro-Microsoft crowd.

"Has somebody done this before?" he joked.

Gates' Top 10 Reasons I Love My PC.

The top ten list was obviously meant to be humorous and it contained some nice jabs at Ralph Nader ("I can use Microsoft PowerPoint to show Ralph Nader my Corvair collection") and the DOJ ("In just one weekend, I can sit at my PC, collaborate with attorneys all over the world, comment on a 48-page legal brief, and email it to the Department of Justice"). Gates then got serious and discussed his concepts of the "digital nervous system" and "Web lifestyle."

The Gates keynote was remarkable for the number of special guests, including an excellent U.S. Marine major that uses specially protected Windows laptops and Windows CE handheld PCs in the battlefield, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who only recently started using computers and had trouble single-clicking hyperlinks in Internet Explorer. The world's richest man stepped in to help, to the delight of the audience. The keynote also featured numerous videos, including an incredible parody of the famous Volkswagen "da da da" ad where two young men pick up an old chair, only to later drop it off when they realize it smells. In the Microsoft version, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are in the Volkswagen, with Gates pulling on the little skeleton and nodding along to the music. They pick up a Sun Sparc, only to later realize it smells, so they drop it back in the trash. It was easily the highlight of the night.

Kareem Adbul-Jabbar joins Gates onstage.

Gates discussed the problems with today's computers and said that Microsoft was working on simplifying its programs and operating systems.

"Now, the next major upgrade of Windows NT will be a very major milestone for us," he said. "It's not just the application architecture, the directory architecture, the security architecture, but, most important, it's the things that we've done in driving forward lower cost of ownership. That's a big part of the simplicity campaign."

Chris Capossela of the NT 5 team joined Gates to demonstrated a new feature called IntelliMirror, which allows clients on a Windows NT 5 network to store their user preference settings, data, and other critical information on a central server. This has numerous benefits, such as the ability for users to use any machine and retain their settings and get access to their data. Also, as Capossela demonstrated, it allows a user to get a totally new machine and have it automatically set up for them when it first comes online.

The IntelliMirror feature was slow and buggy ("Snappy," Gates commented dryly while waiting for a screen refresh) and it is not currently available in the beta 1 build of NT 5 that is currently circulating among testers. However, it was clear from the demo that this technology is real and it works well. Gates said that IntelliMirror would debut in beta 2, due "early next year."

Overall, the keynote was one of Gates' better presentations. Interestingly, there was no mention of Windows 98 or Hydra. Joe and I proceeded to Monte Carlo after the keynote and ate the largest slabs of beef we had ever seen: 2-inch thick Prime Ribs whose size cannot be exaggerated. I love this town.

Day two - Monday, November 17, 1997
Monday morning we did the lemming thing and stood in line for an hour or so to catch a bus to the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is the main hall for Fall Comdex. We met up with the
WUGNET guys--Larry, Joel, and Howard--in the press tent, made plans for lunch, and then Joe and I headed into the fray. As usual, Microsoft's massive booth dominated the front third of the main convention center, with numerous theaters, product centers, and a huge partner pavilion, that used to be housed outside in a separate facility. The Las Vegas Hilton, which sits next to the Convention Center, is undergoing massive renovations and additions, which are causing some problems for the show. Microsoft took this opportunity to move its partners inside, causing it to even more clearly overshadow the rest of the hall.

Las Vegas Convention Center with the floppy version of Exchange
Server out front (that's Paul behind the construction fence).

Microsoft's booth was so huge, in fact, that we saw nothing else before lunch. The main theater was showing Internet Explorer and Windows demonstrations all day, drawing standing-room only crowds. The booth was packed, as it was right inside the front door, and getting around was difficult.

Microsoft's booth was huge, crowded, and noisy.

Microsoft was showing a new keyboard, the Natural Keyboard Elite, which will be available in February. This new keyboard is 18% smaller than the original one, and includes USB and PS/2 ports. Also on display was the new IntelliMouse Trackball, which is now available. I'm quite taken with this trackball, and will buy one when I get home. A new joystick, the Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro is something to behold, and compatible games offer an experience above and beyond normal game play. This is a must-have for any serious gamer, though it's expensive at $150. I'll be buying one of these as well; It's available now.

Outlook 98 was on display, with junk email filtering topping the gotta-have-it list. We'll have a full review of Outlook 98

here soon; it's a winner.

I had a chance to meet Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's executive vice president of sales and support. The number two man at Microsoft, Steve was wandering the show floor just like anyone else, and is a cool guy.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer meets Paul Thurrott.

Yes, he is always smiling like that (Steve, not Paul).

In a second theater, Microsoft was performing BackOffice, Office 97, and Small Business Solutions presentations. Small Business Server, with its Web-like front-ends for common administrative tasks, looks great. This is the first version of BackOffice that normal humans can actually use, but its inability to upgrade past 25 users is a serious limitation.

Overheard on the tradeshow floor: Microsoft Internet Explorer has eaten into Netscape's lead again. According to DataQuest and Alta Vista, IE's share of the browser market has jumped to 39.4% while Netscape's has fallen from 73% last year to 57.6%. Dataquest predicted that Microsoft would surpass Netscape in mid-1998. Interestingly, Microsoft says its share is even higher: a survey it conducted in October found its share to be 41% while Netscape's were only 50%.

Microsoft was also showing off "Hydra," which is now officially known as Windows-based Terminal Server 4.0. Beta 1 will be available soon, though the test field will be small. Microsoft is promising a larger test, possibly public, for beta 2. Interestingly, they showed a Macintosh client for Hydra, in addition to a Windows 95 client.

Windows CE 2.0 devices were seen throughout the booth and, indeed, the entire convention. CE 2.0 looks good, with color support and numerous different types of hardware.

The crowds swelled at the Microsoft theatres. Look at those geeks.

Other theaters showed Visual Studio 97 demos, and we sat through Exchange Server and SQL Server presentations. Exchange Server 5.5 was officially released today, and Microsoft dropped the bomb during the announcement that NT 5.0 would be delayed until the second half of 1998, not mid-1998 as previously thought. Exchange Server 5.5 includes Outlook 8.03, though Outlook 98 will be available for free when its ready in early 1998. A Web-based version of Outlook was particularly impressive. Unfortunately, the SQL Server demo didn't include any information about the next version.

We met up with the WUGNET guys at Piero's, a great Italian restaurant that was offering up free tortellini, shrimp, and other fine food for the press. It was a good chance to relax and rest the feet. Everyone at WUGNET had gotten a 3Com PalmPilot and the testimonials rolled in. Maybe I should get one of those too, and ditch the almost useless CE machine I use.

Show note: I wore my new South Park "Oh my God! They killed Kenny!" t-shirt and was quite a hit. Apparently, I'm not the only one with a sick sense of humor: People were pointing at me and begging me to tell them where I got it, but it was a gift. Thanks, Jeff!

After the throbbing in our feet had subsided a bit, Joe and I headed back into the crowd at the main convention hall. Philips had an impressive booth, showing everything from beautiful 52" plasma flat-panel displays and 20" LCD computer monitors to Windows CE 2.0 and WebTV Plus devices.

Comdex show floor.

Hitachi is offering a Libretto competitor called the Vision Book Traveller. This Hitachi mini-notebook measures only 9.2"x6.8"x1.3" and weighs only 2.7 pounds with two batteries, but offers a Pentium 133 MMX CPU and Windows 95.

Umax was showing off its NC-300, which is an Oracle-style NC that offers Windows terminal emulation through Citrix. The Umax system offers a nice, simple user interface and is clearly enough computer for most people. Netscape Navigator 3.03, email, address book, calendar, and word processing capabilities are built-in.

Lotus and its parent company IBM were hawking Domino and Notes Internet solutions, while a Lotus theater promised a preview of its upcoming eSuite for Java NCs. We missed the eSuite demo, but will try to catch it tomorrow.

Intel's Pentium II guys were boogying away in the LVCC.

In the bowels of the Hilton were other booths, made all the more distant by the construction. After finally figuring out how to get over there, we were surprised that Netscape was nowhere to be seen; they've been at the Hilton for the past few years. CompuServe was sporting a new "C" logo and touting its new 4.0 software. Intergraph was showing off new graphics workstations and incredible 3D video cards. They promised to ship a Voodoo2-based 3DFX video card early next year.

By this time, it was just about 5:00 p.m., so we headed back to the media tent to rest our feet again and check our email. Meeting up with George Beekman, a computer book author and college instructor from Oregon, we headed out to the Stardust ballroom, where Multi-tech hosted an incredible free buffet dinner, with a stage show. No one seemed to know who Multi-tech was exactly, but this was one of the best meals I've ever had, with tables heaped high with shrimp, prime rib, meatballs, cheeses, fruit, and more. We kept waiting to get thrown out but no one else seemed to understand why this was being given away either. We stuck around and listened to the live music, which consisted of mostly-80's songs for the Comdex crowd. It was quite the get-together.

Tomorrow, we'll be heading to the second site at the Sands Convention Center.

Day Three - Tuesday, November 18, 1997
Tuesday morning Joe and I decided to cover some of the booths at the Las Vegas Convention Center that we missed the day before. First, though, we headed up to the Microsoft press room, above the show floor, to pick up videos of the Gates keynote and collect some press info on their new products. Microsoft was pushing Exchange 5.5, Outlook 98, Windows 98, the Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro joystick, and Windows CE 2.0. After a few minutes in the mind control booth, we headed back down to the floor with an insatiable urge to buy anything with the Microsoft logo on it. That would pass with time, we figured.

Joe ten seconds before he almost got arrested
(note security guards in front).

Next stop was the massive Sony booth, where we returned to drool over the massive LCD and plasma flat displays. This technology is currently too expensive for most people, including us, but they've clearly developed to the point that they will soon be common items. Expect to pay a premium for the short term for the luxury of flat panel nirvana. Sony was also showing off its new VAIO laptops, which look fantastic, along with a cool new dock.

Sony, like Philips, was showing off killer LCD and Plasma displays.

After another quick pass around the floor, we headed over to the Sands Convention Center, site of the second show area. The Sands is always the bargain-basement edition of Comdex, and this year was no different. Most of the space at the Sands was filled with low-end hardware distributors (who were pushing PC cases, cables, and the like) though there were a few exceptions.

Most notable was Creative Labs, which was showing off a pre-production version of its upcoming 3DFX Voodoo 2-based 3D Blaster video card. Creatively dubbed the "3D Blaster Voodoo 2," this card will replace the existing Verite-based 3D Blaster when it is released in February. Suffice to say we were blown away by this card; both Joe and I are planning to buy one the day they came out. At the show, Creative was demoing a game called Turok, Dinosaur Hunter, that was getting well over 100 Frames Per Second (FPS) at 800 x 600 resolution. We had heard about this card getting killer frame rates at Quake 2, but seeing it in person is hard to describe. Best yet, the 3D Blaster Voodoo 2, like other Voodoo 2 cards, can be linked to a second card to literally double its speed.

Rival video companies Play! and NewTek were showing off their latest products as well. Play! has released a new version of its popular Snappy video capture tool, which is a bargain at $100. NewTek, formerly the darlings of the Amiga video market, are making a run with NT graphics workstations although an Amiga tower machine was prominently displayed in their booth. NewTek was also pushing a new version of LightWave 3D, version 5.5, for Windows NT.

We left the Sands faster than Microsoft dropped Bob and headed over to the Sharper Image at the local mall for a free foot massage on their display machines. Hey, our dogs were dying and as lame as this sounds, we spent a lot of time trying to justify a $3000 massage chair purchase. My God.

With no taxis to be had, we ended up walking down the strip to the hotel. Forgoing the party schedule once again, we rested up and ate two more monster steaks, this time at the Circus Circus steak house, creatively named "the Steak House."

And then, we crashed. Hey, we're lame.

But Keith Furman of WUGNET is not lame. Keith decided to go to the exclusive Spencer the Katt party. Here is his account:

One of COMDEX 97's hottest events was held this year at the Harley Davidson Cafe in Las Vegas. Ziff Davis's PCWeek's late nite Spencer Katt gathering. Spencer Katt, PCW's Rumor columnist, host's this "must attend" event where anybody whose anybody in the computer industry parties! (Note: this explains the absence of WinInfo's Paul Thurrott and Joseph Jones).

Before coming to my first Comdex, I've heard numerous times that getting tickets for Katt was nearly impossible: with a little luck and knowing the "right" folks, you might finally come upon an actual invitation. But an invite was never a problem, because the Windows Users Group Network (

WUGNET), the publishing group that I attended Comdex with, were veteran Katt party animals. They were official "Gold Card" Katt card holders...I didn't realize how special the card was until we actually arrived at this year's Katt event held at the Harley Davidson Bar on Las Vegas Blvd.

Upon arrival on the first officially party night of Comdex, the crowds waiting in line were incredible. Apparently, our

WUGNET contingent of four individuals (including myself and WUGNET's founder, Joel Diamond), avoided the lines thanks to our Gold status. As we walked pass the crowd, I noticed that one individual waiting in line, Ted Waite, CEO of Gateway 2000. Apparently, the security folks at the door had no idea who Ted was and weren't letting him in. We turned to Ted and invited him to join us to avoid the lines and walk in with our group of "Wuggies". He accepted! (Thinking back, maybe I should have asked him if he had any extra Home PC Entertainment Centers for testing... ). Ted wasn't the only one we helped get into the party... we had a few extra invitations and offered them to a couple of friends, a PC Computing columnist, and the editors of Home Office Computing, and the CEO of Interactive Agency, a major PR firm in So. California.

(Read: If Paul and Joe weren't so lame, they would have gotten in).

I really had no idea who or what I would see, but within seconds of entering the bar, someone had mentioned that Microsoft's Steve Balmer had just left. I've heard from other Katt Party veterans that Steve is just the opposite of Bill G. regarding these parties...he's a real party animal. I'll just have to accept what folks say. I wondered if Bill would show up.

Within 15 minutes, Joel took me aside and pointed out Bill Gates, the Microsoft CEO, who had just slipped in a back door. We immediately walked over greeted him, along with hundreds of others. When I had Bill's attention, I told him how much I enjoyed his keynote on Sunday night (note: Keith didn't even attend the keynote, the little kiss-a**. --Paul). Shortly afterwards, I lost sight of Bill G. until someone shouted... "Bill's on the dance floor". There he was, with at least 2 female partners, exhibiting one of the strangest examples of nerd dancing I've ever seen. Bill might be the richest man in the world and the great visionary of our century, but the man can't dance .

I had a few different theories about who he was dancing with. Thankfully, it turns out that it was his wife, Melinda French.

The real fun of this event was getting the opportunity of personally meeting computer company executives and major press luminaries who are actually familar and friends of

WUGNET... from Michael Dell of Dell Computer, Compaq's Eckhard Pffeifer to the who's who in columnists like PC Week's Peter Coffee, John Dvorak, SmartReseller's Mary Jo Foley, ABC Good Morning America correspondent Gina Smith, and many more.

Day Three
- Wednesday, November 19, 1997
Wednesday morning,
WUGNET's Webmaster, Keith Furman, dragged our lazy butts out of bed at a reasonable time (it took a few phone calls, but we finally made it) and made us feel like idiots for not going to the Spencer the Katt party. After a cattle-like breakfast at the Circus Circus buffet, the three of us headed over to the Stratosphere in a vain attempt to lose said breakfast riding the aptly-named "Big Shot" ride at the top of the 1100-foot structure. I did this last year, so I suppose this makes it a Comdex tradition now, but in case you've never heard of this thing, the Big Shot is a steeple-like structure on the top of the Stratosphere, the 6th-tallest free-standing structure in the world. The Stratosphere looms over the rest of Las Vegas like a metal version of Manute Bol; it's unbelievable.

Las Vegas as seen from the top of the Stratosphere.

With fear and trepidation in our hearts, we headed to the 110th floor and out into the open air. Making it worse, a ride launched up at 4Gs just as we arrived on the roof, making us question the sanity of this ride. Of course, we had to do it (and we have the picture to prove it) but we all came away with new respect for astronauts and our own gastro-intestinal systems. No one barfed, I mean.

After calming down a bit, we headed back to the LVCC for a bit so that Keith could visit the Microsoft press room. Like lemmings, we also sat through a Windows 98 demo in one of the over-crowded Microsoft theaters.

"Windows at home" featured Windows 98 and its new TV
capabilities (that's Paul and Keith's heads there in front;
exiciting, eh?).

We also checked out a few more booths, such as Matrox and Iomega. While you'd think that Iomega's ZIP disk would long ago have fallen to the floppy-compatible LS-120, that hasn't been the case, and Iomega was showing off numerous OEM editions of their popular drive. It seems that every major PC manufacturer is now offering a custom-made version of the ZIP for their customers. Oh, they handed out free chocolate too, though that had nothing to do with this write-up. They rule.

Rolodex was showing off a cool device called "Rex" in the Microsoft booth (for some reason). Rex is an electronic personal information manager in the form of a PCMCIA (PC-Card) card that has an LCD display and four small buttons on the top. The way this little guy works is that you plug it into your computer (they sell the adaptor for desktop machines) and download all the info from any leading PIM (such as Microsoft Outlook, Symantec Act or Lotus Organizer) into the PC card. Then, you carry it around in your wallet and use the GUI and buttons to access the information on the road. Folks, this thing kicks butt. It retails about $150, and it's out now. I'd buy one if it cost less than $100 (hint, hint). Still, it's a useful tool. Check it out.

Keith, Joe, and I then headed over to New York, New York, the latest tragedy, er ah, casino, on the Las Vegas Strip. Designed as a mini-replica of New York City, this casino features an outside roller coaster, smoking manhole covers and fake trees. In other words, it's what New York would look like if it were a casino in Las Vegas. Well, you get the idea.

We rode the roller coaster, which features two loops and a nice view of Vegas (given the speed), and Joe checked out a lame virtual reality machine in the arcade. After Keith left, Joe and I went to the bar in "Times Square" and waxed philosophical about Vegas and the show. Phrases like "it's not worth it, man," and "it's a bug hunt, just a bug hunt"

permeated the conversation. Basically, Fall Comdex is a mess, and this year was messier than most. The big problem this year, really, was that no big products were announced and that the best demos we saw--Windows NT 5.0 IntelliMirror and Windows 98--are many months away.

Joe tries a VR game and comes away disapointed.

Of course, we're going back. How could we not? It's hard to get excited about the crowds, the aching feet, and the noise, however. I guess the monster prime ribs help, but in the end, the real allure of Comdex is the chance to see something really new.

Oh, and the trip home. That's nice too.

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